The Sons of Katie Elder

The Sons of Katie Elder
"First, we reunite, then find Ma and Pa's killer...then read some reviews."

Monday, November 28, 2011

The Bandit of Zhobe

Late this summer I reviewed 1956's Zarak, a quasi-historical epic that was entertaining for all the wrong reasons. Epically bad choices in casting, lack of story and character development, all lost in a search for that epic scale which was never really there to begin with.  So how do you improve on it? Well, long story short, you don't. Made three years later, 1959's The Bandit of Zhobe is almost scene-for-scene the exact same movie.

A chieftain of an Indian tribe (India, not Native American) on the frontier, Kasim Khan (Victor Mature) has his family and life torn apart from him, his tribe massacred in a brutal massacre led by Azhad Khan (Walter Gotell), a rival chief who leads the attack with his men dressed as British troops. With a small but loyal group of followers, Kasim becomes a bandit, terrorizing British interests in the area. The regional commander, Major Cowley (Norman Wooland), would like nothing more than to get his hands on the bandit, but Kasim avoids him at every turn. Cowley's daughter, Zena (Anne Aubrey), believes Kasim deserves a chance to know the truth, but can she get him to believe what actually happened?

I gave a marginally positive review for 1956's Zarak (read HERE) in July. The TCM website inexplicably listed this quasi-sequel/remake as a western, but it was apparent almost immediately that this was basically the same thing as Zarak.  Check that, it's not basically the same thing. It is the same thing. Mature plays the same character risen from the dead, Wooland the capable British officer trying to arrest him, and Aubrey the oddly out of place possible love interest. Maybe studios thought audiences were stupid enough to forget. Maybe the studios just didn't care, seeing a cheap chance to make some money. Yeah, that second one sounds more appropriate.

For whatever reason and having seen the two movies about four-five months apart, I liked 'Bandit' considerably more than its predecessor.  Go figure because I certainly can't. The same problems are there -- little story, just a running series of battles, no character development -- but I went along with it this time. Hoping to capitalize and make some easy $, the studio reuses countless shots and whole sequences.  Watch them back-to-back and you'll see at least 15-20 minutes of footage pop up in both films.  The battle scenes are ripped from Zarak in their entirety and dropped into this movie. The positive? The Zarak battles scenes were the best thing going for that movie, and not surprisingly they work here too.

Looking like he's phoning it in for a paycheck, Mature says about 18 words the whole movie. Those words are growled and muttered. He is the star of the movie with name recognition only, nothing else. The focus instead turns to his British counterparts.  Anthony Newley plays Cpl. Stokes, the somewhat goofy British soldier placed in charge of watching the major's daughter and not enjoying his duty at all. Some comedy but not too much thankfully.  Aubrey is the innocent one, sure she can figure everything out without anything bad happening, Wooland the veteran officer trying to avoid a full-scale war breaking out.

So this isn't much of a shocker, but for a 1959 British movie generally forgotten and made on the cheap, there isn't much info out there about 'Bandit.' I'd like to say where the movie was filmed, but I honestly have no idea, and I can't find that information anywhere. So what to say? In Italy or Asia or wherever 'Bandit' was filmed, it is a starkly shot but certainly visually interesting film. The TCM print was in pan-n-scan too, and it still looked good. That speaks to something. An average movie for sure, but one I enjoyed. I'd say watch Zarak too, but the pure awesomeness might blow your mind.

The Bandit of Zhobe <---Youtube scene (1959): ** 1/2 /****

Friday, November 25, 2011

The Man Inside

One of Britain's great character actors, Anthony Newley was honored on Turner Classic Movies recently with a day devoted to his films.  A familiar face who often play sidekicks and partners to the star, Newley was always a welcome face when I stumbled upon him in cast listings. While he provides some odd yet still funny comedic timing in 1958's The Man Inside, even Newley and an impressive cast can't save the movie.

Having planned the robbery for 15 years, Englishman Sam Carter (Nigel Patrick) walks into a diamond exchange in New York City and steals a diamond worth over $700,000.  The success comes from the simplicity of the job, and now no one -- including the police -- know where to start looking for Carter or the diamond. Milo March (Jack Palance), a private detective, is called in to see what he can find trying to pick up the crook's trail. March finds himself globe-trotting, following Carter to Lisbon, Madrid, Paris and London, always one step behind him. He keeps running into a mysterious Austrian woman (Anita Ekberg) who similarly has an interest in acquiring the diamond, and that's not all. Some very bad, very hard men don't care who gets hurt as they search for the rare diamond.

As I found out afterward, 'Inside' is not available on VHS or DVD so I was glad to stumble across it on TCM's schedule. It's nothing special and drifts along with its story more than a pointed, driven effort. Still, director John Gilling keeps it interesting if not always hugely entertaining. There are villains, but the type you assume will never successfully hurt a good guy. Said good guys betray each other, but you know they'll end up working together in the end. Part film noir, heist, and European tour guide, 'Inside' never really decides what it is. Drama? Comedy? Never great and never awful, decent enough way to spend 97 minutes.

Newley didn't get a mention in the plot review because like a lot of sidekicks, his part isn't essential to the story. The very British Newley plays the very Italian Ernesto, a taxi driver and guide in Madrid who meets Palance's March and ends up helping him around the city. He plays surprisingly well off the always intense Palance, providing some lighter moments with some running comedic bits that just shouldn't work, but well, they end up working. It's a good supporting part for Mr. Newley who always seems to be having fun no matter the role he plays.

It always feels like a cop-out when I write about this in a review, devoting an entire paragraph to this particular aspect, but as was the case here in 'Inside' it is really good. Yes, here I go again with on-location shooting, Gilling filming much of his movie in Lisbon, Madrid and Paris. Filmed in a very stylish black and white, this very visual movie helped me as a viewer slog through some of the slower portions. And while it sounds obvious, a movie is just better when you see the actors actually in the locations, not a poorly done green screen effect. It's always pretty clear when the actor isn't actually in those glamorous European cities. To some, maybe it's a little thing, but it's a major selling point for me, and 'Inside' doesn't disappoint on that level.

The good and bad here is that the cast assembled is a good one, but they're not always given anything to do. Lots of travel scenes, lots of pointless talking that waste an otherwise talented cast. Palance's March is a step back from his usual psychotic character he perfected over his career. Still intense, but pulled back a notch or two. Human Barbie doll Ekberg is the femme fatale, playing all sides for her own gain. Patrick is the shifty Carter, the diamond thief who we know little about. Some more background would have been nice about the character, his motivations, his reasoning, something. Also look for Donald Pleasance as a Spanish organ grinder, Sid James as March's friend and supervisor Franklin, and Bonar Colleano and Sean Kelly as two hired guns after the diamond.   

All things considered, a pretty forgettable movie. The cast is above average though, and it's a great movie to look at so there's just enough to recommend here. Barely, but still recommending it.

The Man Inside (1958): **/****

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Horrible Bosses

For the lucky ones among us, work ain't so bad. It's tolerable and even enjoyable at times. But who at some point in their adult life hasn't had one of those God awful, truly horrific bosses that make you want to rip your own ears off? If you don't qualify there, congratulations to you. Turning that fantasy of killing your boss into a feature length comedy -- this past summer's Horrible Bosses -- has never been so funny.

Friends since high school, Dale (Charlie Day), Nick (Jason Bateman) and Kurt (Jason Sudeikis) are all in some rather difficult situations at work in one way or another. With the economy in the tank though, they can't up and quit their jobs, much less tell their bosses off like they'd rather do. Drinking together one night, the three joke about killing their bosses, solving each others' problem with three nice, little murders. Okay, maybe it isn't a joke as all three decide this is their best alternative. With some help from a streetwise ex-con, Motherf**ker Jones (Jamie Foxx), who provides some "murder advice," the three friends go about planning some murders.

There's no way a comedic Strangers on a Train should work, but wouldn't you know it? It does. Murdering your boss(es) doesn't exactly sound like a bucket of laughs, but director Seth Gordon handles it in the right fashion. It isn't a drama with some comedic moments or even a dark comedy with some sinister laughs. This is down and out stupid funny movie with no pretensions of being anything else. Three long-time friends with no criminal background/experience in any way murdering their bosses? Bumbling their way through some 'recon' and 'intel'? The results are surprisingly hilarious with a very funny script from three different screenwriters (I'm too lazy to type and link all three names. Besides, do you care?)

Now onto the bosses, three roles that the actors are clearly having some fun with. The biggest part goes to Kevin Spacey as Harken, Bateman's manipulative tool of a boss with an ego the size of a blimp. Nobody does pretentious and smarmy like Spacey, having a ball playing a ridiculous over the cop comedic part. Jennifer Aniston gets to sex it up as Dale's boss, Dr. Julia, a dentist who takes every opportunity to sexually harass a recently engaged Dale. It doesn't seem so bad as his friends say. Aniston plays against type in a raunchier role than usual, and yeah, she looks phenomenal. Just saying.... And last there's an unrecognizable Colin Farrell as Pellitt, Kurt's cocaine-snorting freak of a boss. He's underused, but what's there is very funny. 

As a long-time fan of FX's It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia, I love Charlie Day's work as Charlie Kelly, the illiterate, generally clueless and all-around goof who can't mange to do anything right. Playing Dale here, he's by far the funniest of the three friends. Goofy at times to the point of crazy, Day shows that same talent he has in Sunny, if a little lighter and not as sinister. The same for Sudeikis who seems destined for bigger and better things than Saturday Night Live. The only misfire is Bateman who seems to be sleepwalking at times. He has some funny lines -- his exchange about street racing with a Prius is classic -- but he doesn't look too interested.

Along with Foxx in a scene-stealing part as MotherF'er Jones, the cast features a couple other small but worthwhile parts. Look for Donald Sutherland, Bob Newhart, Julie Bowen, comedian Ron White, and Ioan Gruffudd in small but extremely effective bit parts.

Something is missing from all the zaniness that I can't quite put my finger on. The movie is funny with some great one-liners coming out of a ridiculously preposterous predicament, but is it too goofy at times? They never seem to really take serious what's going on. Eh, maybe they don't need to. It's funny.

Horrible Bosses <---trailer (2011): ***/****

Monday, November 21, 2011

Hearts of the West

Who among us at some point hasn't wanted to be a movie star? Even if it was just for a second, the glamour of the big screen looks awfully inviting. So how about a young country bumpkin getting started in the movies and finding out it isn't quite as glamorous as it looks? In steps 1975's Hearts of the West.

Hoping to become a western novel writer, young Lewis Tater (Jeff Bridges) heads west to what he believes is a writing school only to find it is a correspondence school and a con job at that. Still wanting to pursue his dream, Lewis runs afoul of the con men (Anthony James and Richard B. Shull) and ends up with some of their money. On the run, Lewis stumbles onto the set of a western being filmed in the desert and quickly finds work. He wants to be a writer above all else but starts off as a background player and stuntman, meeting Howard Pike (Andy Griffith) and a handful of other vets of the business. Somewhat naive and a little idealistic though, Lewis finds out everything isn't quite what it's made out to be.

Following your dreams and coming of age stories are pretty familiar story-lines, but that's not a bad thing. Bridges at 26 years old is probably a little old for the Lewis character, but he makes it work. A tad pretentious at times because he's so assured of his writing abilities, Bridges gives Lewis that solid mix of naive youngster and over the top, energetic where you can't help but like him. He meets people both good and bad, finding out that trusting others isn't always the easiest or best thing to do to advance yourself. Bridges is one of my favorites, and his performance here -- while not one of his most well known -- is a very strong role to lead the movie.

What works so well with director Howard Zieff's movie is the portrayal of an ever-growing business, movies. Set in the early 1930s, 'Hearts' is right in that time when studios were still trying to figure out how to make the transition from silent films to sound films, the focus here on the cheap western serials made with a quick turnaround. The good guys were very good, the bad guys very bad, and the stunt guys? Well, they just want to get paid. It is the little scenes and moments that made me laugh. Alan Arkin plays Kessler, a director who can manipulate like nobody's business, "motivating" Lewis by telling him the money they'll lose if a scene doesn't work. Bridges' ridiculously theatrical "death scene" has him twisting and turning, moaning and groaning before finally falling to the ground with a thud. A little window into one of Hollywood's most interesting eras, and a good window at that.

In an impressive supporting cast, Arkin and Griffith both stand out for all the right reasons. Arkin's Kessler is a supporting player to the story and not a necessarily important one, but Arkin makes the best of it. He isn't chewing the scenery, but it's close. He gets to ham it up a bit working with his cast, stunt men, script supervisors and film crew. Kessler goes from zero to 60 like nothing, providing some truly funny outbursts. In between The Andy Griffith Show but before Matlock, Griffith gets to show off his range, a fun character who's had years of experience in the business who also has a darker side. Bridges' Lewis clearly looks up to him, something that could come back to bite him. It's a great performance, both of them are, the strong parts that can bring a movie up a notch or two overall.

That's not all though with a very deep cast assembled for this movie-making film. Blythe Danner plays Miss Trout, a script supervisor who Lewis meets on-set. She similarly feels sympathy for him while also liking him and his genuine willingness to make something of himself. Donald Pleasence makes a quick appearance as A.J. Neitz, a movie producer with lots of pull all around Hollywood. Alex Rocco is underused as Earl, one of Arkin's assistants. Matt Clark and Burton Gilliam are two of the stunt crew who work with Lewis and Howard, putting themselves in harm's way for a small payday. Good cast from top to bottom.

Not much else to say here. Just a good movie, funny, sweet and a great look into the movies from behind the camera.

Hearts of the West <---TCM clips (1975): ***/****

Sunday, November 20, 2011

The King and Four Queens

Where to start with 1956's The King and Four Queens? You know, other than "I really didn't like it." Billed as a comedy western, it never amounts to anything and had me wondering where all that comedy went. Some interesting casting and a good director, but it is a story that would have benefited from a much darker, more cynical approach. Of course I say that about a lot of movies, but here goes anyways.

Riding into a lonely western town, Dan Kehoe (Clark Gable) has possibly stumbled onto riches more than he ever imagined. A bartender tells him of $100,000 worth of gold but with an interesting backstory. The four McDade brothers pulled off a robbery of the gold, but three were killed and one escaped and has been hiding ever since. The gold is believed to be guarded at Saddle Mound, the McDade ranch run by Ma McDade (Jo Van Fleet), and the four possible widows of the brothers. Dan has $ in his eyes, and he intends to get that gold, even with the protective Ma around, guarding her daughter-in-laws and the gold with her rifle. Let the charming and seduction begin.

This movie has 1950s American western syndrome. It has all the elements of a potentially entertaining, successful western but never finds a way to gel all those elements together. Even late in his career, Gable is a worthy leading man, and director Raoul Walsh was a more than capable hand with a story like this. Shot on location in Utah, the locations are stunningly beautiful, providing a great backdrop for a lackluster story that never goes anywhere. Composer Alex North's score doesn't leave much of an impression, positive or negative.

Like so many 1950s American westerns, 'King' goes more for the psychological edge which sounds weird considering it is a comedic western. At least, it's listed as that. It isn't funny in the slightest, and the story of a saddle tramp -- even one as charming as Clark Gable -- wooing four lonely, attractive and man-happy widows and their controlling, intimidating mother-in-law just isn't funny at its most basic. If you're going to make this a comedy, just commit. Make it ridiculous. Make it stupid, but you have to try and provide some sort of laughs.

This is going to sound ridiculous after I ripped the movie the last two paragraphs, but there were times watching this western where I couldn't help but think of a well-written play, if not Shakespeare along those lines certainly. If Walsh didn't want to commit to a slapstick comedy, then go the other way. Make this western the darkest thing you've ever seen. A saddle tramp charming, seducing and manipulating four attractive young widows to gain the gold they're hiding sounds like a naturally pretty dark scenario, but that's not the case here. Disappointing end result. Maybe there's potential for a Skin-a-max movie with this story. Who knows, it couldn't be much duller than this movie.

Working with what they've got in terms of a script, the cast does their best with what's in front of them. Gable is okay as Kehoe, but it isn't the most energetic part or most interesting. Jo Van Fleet has the strongest part as Ma McDade, family matriarch who's seen her family torn apart and is desperately trying to hold on to what's left. The widows include Eleanor Parker as Sabina, smart and crafty and up to something, Jean Willes as the fiery and hot-tempered Ruby, Barbara Nichols as Birdie, the dance hall girl, and Sara Shane as Oralie, the quiet, even meek widow.  Look for Jay C. Flippen as a helpful bartender, Arthur Shields as a priest, and Roy Roberts as a curious sheriff.

Never a good sign when the best thing a movie has going for it is the location shooting. Dull western that wastes a decent cast. Thankfully it's only 84 minutes long. Still.....pass.

The King and Four Queens <---early scene (1956): */****

Saturday, November 19, 2011

The Big Caper

Nothing flashy, nothing new to the genre, I still very much liked 1957's The Big Caper. Solid cast, interesting B-movie characters, and some bad guys as part of a heist crew that are just too much to believe. A classic? Nope, but it's pretty good for what it is, an entertaining heist movie that doesn't try to be anything that it isn't.

Several months removed from his last successful job, Frank Harper (Rory Calhoun) has ran out of money and has found a new job, one that he could retire on if it goes through. A poorly guarded bank with minimal security twice a month holds the payroll for the Marine base and Camp Pendleton, and to Frank, the money is begging to be taken. He approaches partner and bankroll, Flood (James Gregory), who agrees to go along with the plan. As a set-up, Frank and Flood's girl, Kay (Mary Costa), move into town, buy a gas station and a house, setting up shop as a young, married couple. Creating an alibi, they live there several months in preparation for the job, and then Flood's crew shows up. Let the trouble begin.

The one twist on the familiar noir-heist thriller was the 'what if?' concept added into the story. Setting up a nice, little life for themselves, Frank and Kay become a part of suburban life. Frank makes a profit at his gas station, Kay creates a home for the "couple" and things are looking all around pretty good for them. Kay wants nothing more than to get away from the menacing Flood while Frank's tortured past and childhood seemingly won't let him appreciate what he has.  Kay tries like crazy to convince him otherwise. We're not talking Shakespeare here, but it was nice to see at least some effort by a movie made to bring something new to the heist flick. The effort is very much appreciated.

A Just Hit Play favorite, Calhoun does what he does best here, the bad guy who maybe isn't so bad. He does the tough guy like nobody's business, treading that fine line between straight villain and flawed hero.  It's good to see him in a non-western too where he got pigeon-holed throughout the 1950s.  There's a definite chemistry with Costa, bringing some heart to their scenes together in idyllic suburban life. For you trivia fans, Costa was the voice of Princess Aurora in Disney's Sleeping Beauty so there you go. Being the more obvious sinister villain that he was born to play, Gregory is a scene-stealer, the crime kingpin who puts everything in motion. He doesn't seem like that bad of a guy until some problems arise pre-heist, and well, things go downhill from there. Not big names leading the way, but all strong performances.

This is a 1957 B-movie noirish heist story, and the bad guys have to be very bad to make Calhoun's Frank be sympathetic. Mission accomplished in that department. Let's start with some of Flood's crew, beginning with Zimmer (Robert H. Harris), an explosives expert who will create several diversions during the robbery. His flaw? He's an alcoholic pyromaniac who can never have too much gin. Next, there's Roy (Corey Allen), a fitness freak with some rapist tendencies, or at least some sexual issues that Flood plays up. There's also Harry (Paul Picerni), a ladies man and all-around dope, and Dutch (Florenz Ames), the safecracker who wants nothing to do with the crew or the take, just a flat rate for his services. Quite a crew to say the least, one of the more eccentric, eclectic heist crews I can think of.

So has any heist in a movie ever gone smoothly, including the getaway? Okay, the Ocean's 11 remake doesn't count. Of course George Clooney and Co. are going to pull off the job. It's pretty clear that this heist won't go smoothly. For starters, it's a supposed "easy" job, and we all know how that goes.  Translation = Epic fail. The heist sequence -- about 20 minutes long -- is solid, ratcheting up the tension, but it is in the aftermath where 'Caper' falls short a bit. Yes, it's Doom and Gloom time. I wanted an epically downer ending, but the story and/or script just doesn't have the guts. It is far from a happy ending, but more could have been done. Still good, but it could have been great.

This movie across the board has a lot going for it. Director Robert Stevens keeps things moving with an 84-minute movie that is aided by some California locations and a jazzy score from Albert Glasser that is good in that really obvious way, music blaring to tell you what's coming next. Basically a completely forgotten flick, well worth checking out if you stumble across it.

The Big Caper (1957): ***/****

Friday, November 18, 2011

36 Hours

Though I've written about this before, it's hard to avoid repeating it. Imagine a secret the whole world wants to know in this modern ultra-connected world and keeping that secret for months...successfully. In 1944, Allied forces kept a secret of the coming European invasion, keeping Normandy under wraps as the spot of the attack. How far would the Germans go to discovering that location? In steps 1965's 36 Hours.

It is May 31, 1944 and U.S. Army intelligence officer Major Jefferson Pike (James Garner) is sent to Lisbon to meet with a source who may have info on the German's knowledge of the coming invasion. He is one of the select few among the Allied forces who knows not only the location of the coming invasion but all its intricate details....and the Germans know it. He's drugged and kidnapped. How far will the Germans go to get that knowledge? Using a radical procedure developed by Dr. Walter Gruber (Rod Taylor) for a different result, the Germans intend to trick Pike into thinking it is 1950, and that World War II is long since over. With the invasion looming and working in a small window, can Gruber get the info out of Pike in time?

Intensely unique and original. That's the best description I can think of for director George Seaton's film, but somehow it is not enough, not appropriate enough. It is the execution of the first 75 minutes that make this movie special. In 2011, imagine a secret as big as the Normandy invasion.....exactly, you can't. This is a secret that kept the world captive for months and wasn't revealed. The D-Day invasion of June 6, 1944 was a world changer, an event that altered the course of history. Is the story true? Who knows for sure? It stands to reason though that with a coming event that could change the future of the world, one side would pull out each and every stop to see if they could influence that event.

So how does Dr. Gruber do it? Pike is kidnapped and drugged. His hair is dyed, a chemical is placed on his skin to age it, a solution dropped in his eyes to blur his vision, and he wakes up in a U.S. Army hospital in......1950?!? This is a vast conspiracy to get the information out of the Intelligence officer, Gruber telling him he has retrograde amnesia that cancels the last six years of his life. I won't go into a ton of details or reveals, but the movie and the story -- even resorting to an amnesia ploy -- works. It just works. Could Pike fall for it? Could he reveal Normandy as the location of the coming invasion? Would the German High Command even believe him if he told them? One of the most unique, well-told "gimmicks" (for lack of a better word) I've ever seen in a movie.

Three stars do the heavy lifting here in support of said-unique story. Garner is the unknowing dupe, the target. His performance isn't great because the movie doesn't require him to be great. His Pike doesn't have much to do other than look confused. Garner is still himself though, and his laid back, ultra-cool persona works....until he doesn't have to be laid back or ultra-cool anymore. Then watch out there, Germans, because you're in for it. Eva Marie Saint plays Anna, one of Gruber's "assistants," a nurse posing as Pike's future wife. Anna has been lifted from a concentration camp to help, her life used as a bargaining chip. Her character and its relevance certainly adds some gravity to the film, giving a heart to a WWII thriller.

The best part though is saved for Rod Taylor as Doctor/Major Walter Gruber. The brilliant mind behind the plan, Gruber is an American-born German, returning to Germany with his family when he was 16. His original intention with the plan of future-amnesia hypnosis (best description I can think of) was to "save" German troops returning from the Russian front, and it worked, helping them relax only to find out it's a few days later, not years. He has faith in his plan if not its intentions, and Taylor does a great job there. He balances the deception with a genuine concern for Pike, Anna and Germany as a whole as he feels pressure from the S.S. (including interrogator Werner Peters). He seems to know it but plods on anyways. Gruber is fighting a losing battle because he gets the information, he gets the Normandy location, but no one believes it. A great performance from Taylor with a tragic-tint to it.

With a story that unique and entertaining, it would be nearly impossible to keep up the momentum, and the last 30 minutes just isn't as good as the first 80 or so. It loses some of the perspective as the smart, well thought out angle heads back to the more traditional chase sequences. Still, the movie is a gem. It is beautifully shot in black and white and composer Dimitri Tiomkin's score won't disappoint. Even look for Hogan's Heroes' Sgt. Schultz, John Banner, in a small but key role late. Looking for something different in a WWII movie? Start here.

36 Hours <---TCM trailer (1965): ***/****

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Vera Cruz

When audiences saw 1954's Vera Cruz in theaters, I'm curious what their reaction was. Did they appreciate it, realizing they were seeing something new and different? Was it too much of a departure for western fans who liked their good guys very good and their bad guys very bad? It's easy to look back now and see the impact it made on countless other westerns, even heavily influencing the whole sub-genre of spaghetti westerns.

With the Civil War ended and his Louisiana plantation destroyed, former Confederate officer Ben Trane (Gary Cooper) heads south into Mexico looking to start over. He meets Joe Erin (Burt Lancaster), another American if somewhat younger, looking to prosper from the Franco-Mexican War. Joe has with him a gang of gunfighters, adventurers and saddle tramps so Trane joins them, signing on with the French forces, including Marquis Henri (Cesar Romero). They're hired to escort Countess Marie (Denise Darcel) to the port city of Vera Cruz, but something doesn't seem on the up and up. On the trail Ben and Joe figure out why. The Countess' wagon is loaded with $3 million in gold, and now all bets are off.

The Magnificent Seven, The Wild Bunch, Sergio Leone's Dollars trilogy (For a Few Dollars More specifically), those are just a few of the movies heavily influenced by director Robert Aldrich's 1954 western. Vera Cruz was one of the first westerns to take a heavily cynical look at the west and all its violence and greed. It has a mean streak painted right up its back that few other movies couldn't even think of at different points. Little kids are used as hostages by main characters (supposed good guys), brutal betrayals wait around every corner, and the violence can be a little startling in its execution; not often shown but implied. One character gets lanced through the throat, others are shot point blank in the face, one Mexican revolutionary is cornered and run through by French lancers. Startling and effective, always entertaining.

The reason I mention 'Few Dollars More' is the relationship and uneasy partnership formed between Cooper's Trane and Lancaster's Joe, an obvious influence on Clint Eastwood and Lee Van Cleef in Leone's spaghetti western. Both fast on the draw, they form that partnership out of necessity and a certain respect, but that doesn't mean they have to trust each other. Cooper is the unquestioned hero/good guy, but even he has a darker side. Lancaster is easier to read, his Joe telling you whatever you want to here and going along with it as long as it benefits him. He'd betray you with the snap of a finger. Lancaster's devilish grin says all you need to know about his Joe Erin. They have a great back and forth consistently throughout the movie, two legends playing off each other effortlessly.

Filmed in Mexico -- similar locations to The Wrath of God -- Vera Cruz has a feeling of authenticity, of being right there in 1866 as the Mexican Juaristas fight Maximilian's French forces. Aldrich filmed in Technicolor, and the movie has a distinct look to it, somehow colorful and washed out. There are some great individual shots Aldrich does with the camera, one reveal of a plaza ringed with revolutionaries, the other a possible betrayal showing a line of gunmen waiting to turn. Hugo Friedhofer's score is probably the most mainstream thing going for the movie, a more traditional score, but that's not a bad thing. Little things definitely work here to boost up some cool, even iconic scenes like Ben and Joe showing off their abilities at a ball in Maxmilian's court.

Aldrich specialized in guy's guys movies, and his cast is impressive. Along with Romero is Henry Brandon as Capt. Danette, a smarmy French officer looking down on Erin's gang. Darcel is Lancaster's perfect female counter, a beautiful woman ready to betray anyone for her own good, with Sara Montiel playing Nina, a young Mexican woman hovering around the escort. Joe's gang of ruffians and gunslingers should please most western fans with some future stars involved, including Charles Bronson, Jack Elam and Ernest Borgnine while also including Archie Savage as Ballad, a black former Union soldier, James Seay and James McCallion. All smaller parts, but fun ones still, Bronson even getting to play a harmonica, foreshadowing Leone's Once Upon a Time in the West.

Clocking in at just over 90 minutes, Vera Cruz never really slows down, macho head games, showdowns, chases, ambushes and betrayals around every corner. Definitely stick this one through to the end. A Juarista assault on a French garrison has a ton of action, and the shootout among the gang is a doozy, especially the surprising ending. An above average, exciting and influential western, Vera Cruz is a must-see.

Vera Cruz <---TCM trailer/clips (1954): *** 1/2 /****

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

The Bedford Incident

The Cold War produced countless worthy movies ranging from the intensely dramatic like the classic Fail Safe to the insanely sardonic and comedic Dr. Strangelove. One that has been criminally forgotten over the years is much more in the vein of Fail Safe and is a semi-classic in its own right, 1965's The Bedford Incident.

Assigned to write a story about navy life aboard a U.S. ship, journalist Ben Munceford (Sidney Poitier) is flown by helicopter to join the U.S.S. Bedford in a patrol somewhere off the Greenland coast. Aboard the destroyer, Ben meets its captain, Eric Finlander (Richard Widmark), a career officer with a long list of accolades. Finlander is after results even though the United States is not officially at war. Ben finds a crew pushed to their limits, ready to split at the seams as they "hunt." Off the Greenland coast, sonar spots a Russian submarine where it shouldn't be. Finlander orders the Bedford to track it, hoping to receive orders to make the sub surface and identify itself. Ben begins to question though. What is the captain really up to, and what does he hopes will happen?

Tension doesn't begin to describe this movie from director James B. Harris, and why it's been forgotten or not remembered with Fail Safe I will never know. Harris films in black and white, the Bedford the one and only location for the length of the movie. It's cramped and claustrophobic, an odd feeling in the immensity of the ocean. But with Finlander's crew, we feel pushed to far too. We're waiting for something to happen, a confrontation we always wait for but never comes. It becomes almost unbearable as the Bedford hunts a Russian sub -- dubbed 'Big Red' -- with Finlander pushing and pushing, but for what? What does he hope to accomplish?

That of course leads to the ending, one of the best final 20 minutes in a movie ever. In terms of its ability to leave you feeling unsettled and even a little queasy, 'Bedford' and its ending are top notch. It rivals Fail Safe for pure shock and surprise value, and in the same way tries to deliver a message about the lunacy of the Cold War, a very timely message for 1965 and one that still rings true now in 2011. I want to discuss the ending in more specific detail, but I don't want to take away the emotional impact it can and should have. Stick with this one through to the end, a sense of doom and tension building until the very last shot.

Having worked together twice previously, Poitier and Widmark show off a chemistry together that actors dream of. Poitier is the intellectual, the journalist trying to understand exactly why and what this destroyer is doing. Nothing adds up for him. Widmark is one of my favorites, but I think this may be his best and by far most impressive character. He's a strong leader but a flawed one, driven to the point of obsession, a patriot but maybe too far. His Finlander will protect America at all costs, no matter the cost. Their interview midway through the movie is a highlight, two very talented actors going toe to toe, Harris filming in a close-up of each man's face the whole time.

The DVD packaging pushes those two lead actors as selling points, but that's just some of a handful of impressive supporting parts. Martin Balsam plays Doctor Chester Potter, the new medical officer who arrives with Munceford, immediately finding that he's out of his element, especially with Capt. Finlander. A young James MacArthur is Ensign Ralston, a young officer who Finlander pushes and pushes, possibly too far. Eric Portman is a scene-stealer as Commodore Schrepke, a former U-boat commander serving as an adviser now to the Navy, an extremely gifted commander who sees Finlander for all his flaws and abilities. Also look for Donald Sutherland, Wally Cox and Michael Kane as members of the crew.

This is a movie that deserves better, or at least more recognition. It deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as both Fail Safe and Dr. Strangelove, featuring strong performances from a deep cast, a unique tension-filled story, and one of the all-time great shocker endings. Definitely one worth catching up with.

The Bedford Incident <---trailer (1965): *** 1/2 /****

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Drums Along the Mohawk

As far as solid years go for a director, 1939 was epically successful for John Ford with three classic or near-classic films. The most well-known is Stagecoach, but Young Mr. Lincoln and Drums Along the Mohawk are two of my favorites too. John Ford doing an American Revolution story without most of the trappings and pitfalls that plague so many of his movies? Count me in, one of my childhood favorites and a movie I've seen countless times.

It's 1776 in upstate New York and newlywed couple Gil Martin (Henry Fonda) and his wife, Lana (Claudette Colbert) are moving into the wilderness, a frontier cabin in Deerfield near the colonial settlement at German Falls. The revolution has started, the colonies declaring their independence from Britain. In Deerfield and the Mohawk Valley, the war seems a long way off as Gil and Lana build up a new live for themselves, starting from the ground up. Colonists loyal to the British, Tories, have stirred up the Indian tribes though, and now the outnumbered colonists find themselves fighting in a war that looked like it passed them by. Right in the mix? Gil and Lana protecting their young family and homestead as the war rages on around them.

Movies about the American Revolution are few and far between so you've got to enjoy them as you stumble onto them. Imagine a Ford western transplanted back to the late 1770s and early 1780s with the British and Indians replacing the bandits and Plains Indians. I grew up watching this movie and have always loved it. 'Mohawk' was filmed in Utah -- not exactly a look-a-like for upstate New York -- but it is a stunningly beautiful movie, especially impressive considering the movie is over 70 years old. Throw in a Yankee Doodle themed score from Alfred Newman, and you've got all the elements for a winner. 

Monday, November 14, 2011

Irma La Douce

Tweaking my intro to Bell Book and Candle, here goes for another pairing. After starring in the highly successful The Apartment, it took Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine three years to star in another movie together, the odd screwball dramedy (drama-comedy) from 1963 Irma La Douce.

Rewarded a new beat for an act of bravery, naive Parisian cop Nestor Patou (Lemmon) goes on patrol, finding a street full of prostitutes looking for customers. He's unaware the girls, their pimps, and a hotel owner have to "look around" the obvious illegalities of the situation, and arrests them all. Among the girls is an affable, pretty hooker named Irma La Douce (MacLaine) who Nestor likes right away. Unfortunately, he gets fired for his actions and finds himself on the streets where he eventually meets, fights, and defeats Irma's "handler" (read: Pimp). Now, Nestor finds himself as Irma's handler. The only problem? He fell for her, and he fell for her hard. She refuses to leave the business so how can Nestor stop the woman he loves from sleeping with other men for money?

Anything strike you as particularly odd about the plot? Yeah, the story about prostitutes played for laughs. Director Billy Wilder pushed the boundaries throughout his career, but this one just didn't work for me in the least. There is just something skeevy with a story about a cop turned pimp trying to get the woman he loves to stop being a hooker with a crazy scheme, and by the way, it is a 1960s screwball comedy. Either ahead of its time by 10 years or so or just lost in the ether somewhere, 'Irma' is an oddity. There are moments of drama, comedy and sex jokes, but none of them work too well. It runs 147 minutes, and it feels it, every minute. Too long, not funny and/or serious enough, and proof that prostitution is not a good basis for a screwball comedy.

Filling out the elements of the screwball aspect is a "clever" scheme developed by Lemmon's Nestor that Lucy and Ethel would have been envious of in an episode of I Love Lucy. He doesn't want Irma sleeping with men for money so he poses as Lord X, an aging and very rich British man who pays Irma for her time and nothing else. He pays so much she doesn't need to "do business" elsewhere. It seems like a perfect plan, and it could be one of the dumbest gimmicks/schemes I've ever seen. Lemmon overplays his scenes as Lord X, the prim and proper stiff upper lip Englishman, and are we really supposed to believe Irma -- seemingly pretty intelligent -- doesn't see through the disguise? The story requires Irma not to notice so that's all the explanation needed I suppose.

During filming, MacLaine was apparently less than pleased with the script -- I don't blame her -- but her performance is nonetheless the best thing going for the movie. She was nominated for Best Actress for her titular part, eventually losing to Patricia Neal for her part in Hud. Playing Irma, MacLaine makes the character a hooker with a heart of gold, albeit with a weird sense of personal pride and ideals. Her introduction that is played over the opening credits is truly funny (watch it HERE), seeing her hustle her customers. As was the case with The Apartment, her chemistry with Lemmon is dead-on which makes it all harder to go along with. Comedy? Drama? Neither? Both? I wish Wilder would have chosen one route and stuck with it. It is surprising to see how much Wilder gets away with showing for a 1964 movie, MacLaine doing a handful of nude (<---discreetly covered in the right places) or partially nude scenes.

One other supporting part really impressed me, that of Lou Jacobi as Moustache, the owner of a bar where the pimps hang out while their girls bring in the cash. He apparently has had 20 or 30 previous lives with all the professions he claim to have done and all the knowledge he has floating around in his head. Standing behind his bar, Jacobi's Moustache dispenses wisdom and advice to anyone who will listen and some who won't. Not quite the straight man, he delivers his lines flawlessly, just that right blend of confidence and cocky, confused and helpful. Also look for James Caan in a wordless appearance as a soldier looking for a good time, his first part in a movie.

I was hoping the movie would end quickly when ta-da, the ending came along! Except it didn't make any sense, delivering a "twist" that defies logic. Wilder was famous for his off-the-wall endings that come out of left field, but this one was almost stupid in its surprise. A disappointing end to a movie that I never really got into despite Shirley MacLaine's Oscar-nominated performance. The link above is the first of 11 parts if you want to watch the whole thing.

Irma La Douce <---TCM trailer/clips (1964): **/****

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Bell Book and Candle

Working together in Alfred Hitchcock's 1958 classic thriller Vertigo, co-stars James Stewart and Kim Novak showed off an impressive chemistry that helped make the movie what it was. Stewart was Hitchcock's flawed leading man and Novak the icy blonde. So what's the natural progression as the two worked again later that year? Naturally from a murder thriller to a romantic comedy, 1958's Bell Book and Candle

A modern-day witch, Gillian Holroyd (Novak) does her best to hide the fact that she is in fact, a witch. With her brother, Nicky (Jack Lemmon), a warlock, and aunt and fellow witch, Queenie (Elsa Lanchester), Gillian is limited by what she can do without revealing herself. Running her little shop of voodoo and primitive art, Gillian has developed a bit of a crush on Shepherd Henderson (Stewart), a big-wig publisher who lives in the building. Well, sort of a crush, it can only go so far with witches. When she sees that he's engaged, she puts a hex on him, one that makes him fall in love with her. As things develop though, can Gillian tell him the truth? Can she develop feelings for just a regular old human being?

Just a couple months after reviewing Sunday in New York, here comes another well-written, well-acted, charming and even sweet romantic comedy from the 1950s and early 1960s. Where have they gone? They're just good movies. Sure, they are based in some sort of alternate universe where stories like this could actually exist, but that's part of the fun. The obvious influence this movie had is on the classic 1960s show Bewitched, a modern-day witch with her family trying to hide her "witch-dom." These aren't mean, cruel or vindictive witches -- for the most part, don't mess with Novak's Gillian -- but instead witches that are hiding who they are and struggling with it, seeing an easy way to easy cash and riches but unable to do anything about it.

The romantic pairing of Stewart and Novak might seem a little odd when you really look at it. This was actually Stewart's final role where he played a romantic interest because apparently he didn't think he was suited anymore for that type of role. He was 50 at the time while Novak was 25. So I'm no mathematician, but that's 25 years difference in age, right? For me, the age discrepancy was not an issue. If an on-screen duo has chemistry, that's great regardless of age. It can carry a movie, and here the age difference makes no impression at all. Stewart and Novak are great together, romantically, dramatically and in terms of the more obvious plays for laughs. The relationship is completely removed from the much darker Vertigo so it's fun to see two talented actors switch it up.

While I've always been familiar with her name, this was only the second movie I've seen Novak in, Vertigo being the other. She was only in 28 movies during her career, not many of them hugely popular or widely well-known. In 'Bell Book' Novak is the best thing going here. She is funny and smart and her voice is so perfectly sexy you can't help but fall for the character. Okay, well, I did. I don't care if you didn't. All I can say? I'll be looking for more movies with her starring roles. Yes, I kinda fell in love.

The rest of the cast looks to be having a lot of fun playing off the witchcraft hijinks. Lemmon and Lanchester are hysterical together, a warlord and witch quite content with their special "talents" and "abilities." Lemmon has some great scenes as the bongo band leader of a house band at the Zodiac Club, a den for witches and warlocks. Ernie Kovacs gets to ham it up as the drunken literary expert on all things mystical, including trying to write a book for Stewart's Henderson about witches in New York, not realizing what he's stepped into. Hermione Gingold is funny in a smaller part as Bianca de Passe, the higher-up of all witches, the woman to go to when some special powers are needed.

Funny, charming romantic comedy that I enjoyed from the start. Stewart is very funny, and it's a bonus seeing him do some physical comedy -- his facial expressions are hilarious -- while Novak plays off him well and is gorgeous so she's got that going for. Director Richard Quine has a real winner here.

Bell Book and Candle <---TCM trailer/clips (1958): ***/****

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Hard Boiled

Stereotypes and cliches have to start somewhere when it comes to movies, don't they? That thought kept coming up as I watched director John Woo's 1992 action classic Hard Boiled. This is an action movie that has influenced countless other movies while also sampling for countless ones before it. Over the top is one thing, but this one was ridiculous.

Having worked on a gun smuggling case for months, veteran cop, Inspector Tequila Yuen (Chow Yun Fat) is finally making progress in taking down one of the true kingpins in the business, Johnny Wong (Anthony Wong Chau-Sang). But just as things are starting to click into place, Yuen is told to back off on the case. He's spent too much time putting his investigation together though and keeps on against orders. He finds out that one of Wong's associates, Tony (Tony Leung Chiu Wai), is actually a cop too working deep undercover. Teaming up, Yuen and Tony go about taking Wong down no matter what the cost, but this mobster has a few tricks up his sleeve too.

Within Woo's code as a director is a familiar plot device that has two opposites working together, putting their differences aside to get the job done. That is by far the best thing going for 'Boiled,' the teaming of Woo favorite Chow Yun Fat and Chiu Wau as the two cops fed up with the system they work for that limits them so severely. Of the two, I thought Tony was the more interesting character -- almost a dry run for the character he'd play 10 years later in Infernal Affairs, the inspiration for The Departed. He's tortured inside by what his job requires of him, and he all he really wants out of life is freedom. Either way, two cool characters who live by a specific code and intend to do their damnedest to live up to it.

John Woo basically equates to action, right? He's known for the crazy, ridiculous, beautifully and immaculately choreographed action sequences that Sam Peckinpah would have been proud of. With a 127-minute long movie, there are plenty of chances for that crazy, ludicrous action. The highlight is not surprisingly the finale, an almost 30-minute long sequence in a hospital full of hostages. Yuen and Tony shoot it out with a not-so-small army of mob gunmen while police and SWAT race into the building to help. I'm guessing about 938,484 bullets were fired overall to film these scenes, an orgy of gunplay, blood squibs and acrobatic spinning deaths.

That's where the stereotypes and cliches come in. First, I know there is no basis in reality in these action scenes.  They are supposed to be so intentionally unrealistic that you just sit back and marvel at them. But at what point does it become too much? How many times can you see a bad guy take 75-100 bullets, blood squibs going off left and right, as he spins and groans and grimaces? There's also the good guys who dive and jump and throw themselves through windows without a scratch. All the cliches are here, my favorite being guns that fire over 1,000 rounds without needing to reload. The bad guys -- all of them, each and every one of them -- also suffer from that movie disease that affects nameless henchmen. They couldn't hit the broad side of a barn if they were pressed up against the wall.

The whole movie has that overdone feel to it. The score by Michael Gibbs is one of the worst I've ever heard, a mix of soft jazz -- Yuen is a jazz musician in his downtime -- and late 1980s electronica. Good combination, huh? Woo also consistently ends scenes with a quick freeze frame, a weird touch that I just didn't get. The biggest issue though is a general tongue in cheek feel. There are bizarre moments where you can't help but wonder if this should be taken seriously. Toward the end in the hostage situation, Yuen's girlfriend (Teresa Mo), must rescue a maternity ward full of infants. SWAT helps out, rappelling down the side of the building, babies in hand. She yells "I forgot a baby!" at one point, and I almost laughed. Yuen shoots his way out holding the baby the whole way. Woo is at his best with dark and cynical, not light and ironic with humor.

Other cool parts include Philip Kwok as Mad Dog, Wong's top killer, an expert with a variety of weaponry. He has a great scene with Tony in the hospital, a hired killer with a code of ethics of sorts. Philip Chan plays Superintendent Pang, Yuen's superior officer trying to get cases solved while protecting his officers. Chau-Sang is the hamming it up villain, looking to be enjoying himself. I loved Woo's The Killer but couldn't go along with this one the same way. Disappointed I didn't like this one more.

Hard Boiled <---trailer (1992): **/****

Friday, November 11, 2011

The Hanging Tree

Playing again with perceptions, I have an image of Gary Cooper as the perfect leading man. No flaws, just a strong, resolute, good man that he so often plays with his characters. Call it Sgt. York Syndrome, or Friendly Persuasion Fever. I see more and more with his roles that he didn't have to play that character as he was capable of so much more, darker, more in-depth characters, like 1959's The Hanging Tree.

In the Montana hills during a gold strike in 1873, Dr. Joseph Frail (Cooper) rides into a gold boom-town and sets up shop. He quickly helps a young gunshot victim, Rune (Ben Piazza), who was shot but managed to escape while robbing the sluice of a miner, Frenchy Plante (Karl Malden). No one saw Rune to identify him, leaving only Frail that knows what he was caught attempting. Frail holds it over his head, insisting he work off his "bill" while not telling him that he threw away the bullet he dug out of his shoulder. Rune agrees, but news hits the town of a woman struggling to survive in the wilderness his problems are pushed aside. The woman, Elizabeth Mahler (Maria Schell), a Swedish immigrant, is found near death. Frail treats her, but questions arise about his intentions. Can the doctor's path come back to haunt him again?

It's odd to see a leading man in a role like this as Cooper plays. He is the star, but with an ensemble cast that features four key parts, Cooper is often pushed to the side in the second act. Of his time in front of the camera through, the screen veteran makes the most of it, again showing his darker, flawed side. His Dr. Frail means well in almost all of his intentions, but the execution of those intentions leave something to be desired. He wants to help those around him, but his manner of doing so is odd. Because he doesn't care what others think of him, Frail obviously rubs some people the wrong way. In the dark, tragic character department, he's also trying to right a wrong, redeem himself for a past action that hovers around him wherever he goes. Somewhat underused, but a great part for Cooper.

Because I feel the need to categorize every movie, I guess you can say this is a western...sort of. The TCM description/review said a movie that's 'Not for all tastes.' It isn't a shoot 'em up, guns blazing western. From director Delmer Daves, this qualifies more as a psychological western, focused more on the individual personalities and dynamics than the wild west action. All the characters are scarred in some way, flawed in another and thrust into this difficult time and place to survive in. Because of that, the pacing can be a little slow at times as the story struggles to pick up any momentum. It took me three different sit-downs to get through the 106-minute movie. When it works, it really works though.

It's also different from most westerns in the setting, the mountains and hills of Montana in the 1870s. There aren't gunfighters or cowboys and Indians. Instead, it's gold prospectors, shop owners, doctors, fanatical preachers, and even families with children around. The look of the movie is great, Daves filming the story in Washington. There is also a very entertaining and completely wrong toned theme song, sung by Marty Robbins. Give it a listen HERE. It's catchy. I'll give him that, even if it sounds like it should have been in a lighter western.

What works through some of the slower portions of the movie is the characters around Dr. Frail, especially Schell's Elizabeth. I probably complain too much about this, but if a western is going to feature a female lead, this is a good example. Elizabeth was traveling with her father when their stagecoach was held up, her father killed in the robbery. In the wilderness, she starts walking and barely survives, brought back to good health by Frail once she's found. She wants to start out on her own, creating a life for herself. Schell's Elizabeth is a good-natured but strong-willed woman, liking to think the best of people but knowing that isn't always the case. Granted, she's put into an unnecessary love triangle between Frail and Rune, but Daves handles it in the right way. Very solid performance and a strong female performance.

My only experience with Piazza was his small part in The Blues Brothers -- trust me, you'll recognize him -- but in his second feature film, he manages to keep up with Gary Cooper. Malden does what he does best, shows off his versatility. He could play good and bad, sometimes within the same role, like here. You know from his introduction he's up to no good, and a confrontation is coming. Karl Swenson is good as Fraunce, the general store owner and friend of Frail's, while George C. Scott has a small part as a Bible-beating "healer" who sees competition in Frail.

The movie picks up steam toward the last 30 minutes, a mob mentality taking over as the psychological effects start to kick in, the very powerful affect gold has on people. Startling in its brutality, the ending works although the final shot leaves the conclusion to your own interpretation. Slow moving at times, but a worthwhile, underrated psychological western.

The Hanging Tree <---TCM trailer (1959): ***/****

Thursday, November 10, 2011

The Desert of the Tartars

I'd like to think I'm not a movie snob. I try to be open with all movies, but as I've discovered the thousands and thousands of films out there, some are just more challenging than others. We're not supposed to like or enjoy them, or even hate them for that matter. You're just supposed to watch the film and experience it. You challenge yourself sometimes with movies like these, like 1976's The Desert of the Tartars.

Completing his three years at the military academy, young Lt. Drogo (Jacques Perrin) has received his orders, riding to his post with dreams and hopes of adventure and heroism. He has been assigned to Fort Bastiano, a lonely, isolated posting along the country's border. He finds that nothing is as he thought it would. The fort looks out over the desert and a horizon that hasn't seen the enemy -- the Tartars -- in years. Are they even out there somewhere across the desert? Days turns to weeks, weeks to months and months to years here at the fort. The officers and garrison watch time move past them at a glacial pace, questioning what they're doing at this post. Will the Tartars ever come back? Will they attack?

How do you describe a movie like this? It is based off a controversial novel by Dino Buzzati that for years defied a novel-to-film adaptation. At different points, 'Tartars' is surreal, symbolic, other-worldly, philosophical, existential and so much more. It is a movie about waiting and what if? What is coming? What do you do with yourself as you wait? It is an incredibly striking film -- both good and bad -- that I have little to no idea how to interpret. I found myself wondering if the setting was a variation on Purgatory, not Heaven and not quite Hell but clearly not normal life either. I can't say I liked the movie, but it has to be seen to be believed in its weirdness, eccentricity and existentialism.

My thoughts on the Purgatory-like setting come from the visual look of the movie. Italian director Valerio Zurlini turns out one of the most visually imposing movies I've ever seen, an almost apocalyptic setting that looks like it could be the edge of the known world. Zurlini and cinematographer Luciano Tovoli create a world, this isolated fortress completely removed from the real world, miles away from civilization and all it offers. 'Tartars' was filmed in Bam, Iran, the immensely spacious but sparsely occupied fortress becoming another character in the story. Spacious is a good way to describe the movie. It is an immense movie. The desert all around is bigger than it seems because of what it represents, fear, intimidation, and in a weird way...hope. What's out there? These men are driven to the point they welcome an enemy sighting. One of the most beautifully simple visual movies I've ever seen, aided by Ennio Morricone's haunting, almost classical score.

In a story where basically nothing happens for the 146-minute running time, your enjoyment -- or hatred -- of this movie will no doubt come from the characters and their development, their own personal handling of this bizarre posting. Zurlini and star Perrin worked hand in hand to get this movie done, Perrin even contributing much of his own money to help complete the movie while serving as one of the film's producers. He does an incredible job as the young idealistic Lt. Drogo, the inexperienced but very capable soldier who both resents and welcomes his posting to Fort Bastiano. Where this performance works, where all the performances work really, is that the actors bring these individuals to life without much in the way of dialogue. They say a lot with their faces, looks saying more than words ever could. Perrin is great at it especially, and the physical transformation Drogo goes through is remarkable. A very strong lead, one that trickles down to the rest of the cast.

Assembling an international who's who cast, Zurlini has a truly impressive cast here. Max von Sydow plays Captain Hortiz, posted at Bastiano the last 19 years and supposedly the last man at the post to see a Tartar on the horizon. Giuliano Gemma is Major Mattis, the obsessed, career-driven officer with little in the way of personal interaction. Jean-Louis Trintignant has a small part but a good one as Rivone, the post's doctor who sees the men disintegrating around him. Fernando Rey's Nathanson is the one officer who's seen combat but is a shell of himself after suffering a horrific combat wound. Vittorio Gassman plays Fillmore, the beleaguered commandant in a no-win situation. Helmut Griem is Simeon, Drogo's fellow officer and best friend at the post, the two men almost willing a Tartar enemy to show up. These are not showy performances, none of them calling attention to themselves, but that doesn't mean they don't make an impression.

Now this far into the review, you're probably thinking 'Hey, this is pretty positive.' And it is. I intended it that way. What works well here is a home run. What doesn't work is awful. I'm not exaggerating when I say that in 146 minutes almost nothing happens. Visual and beautiful to look at is one thing, impressive performances another, but NOTHING happens. Zurlini wants to put you to sleep, just like the characters on-screen. He wants to lull you into this uncomfortable silence, this possibly impending doom. Even a surprise in the final moments is so underplayed that it doesn't make the impact it could have.  The final 30 minutes do pick up the pace -- thankfully and mercifully -- to the point where the ending is effective in that sense of doom.

So where does it fall in the end? The deliberately slow pacing no matter how much I try to push aside as a minor complaint just isn't. This was a difficult movie for me to get through especially considering the two-plus hour run-time. I'd like to believe the performances from the very deep cast and the incredible look of the movie are enough to recommend the movie, but even there I'm struggling. It is a movie that defies ratings in a way, but the positives are that good. Barely....just barely, I'll go positive here.

The Desert of the Tartars <---trailer (1976): ** 1/2 /****

Wednesday, November 9, 2011


Something about Robert Mitchum and Mexico just worked well together. Mitchum consistently returned to Mexico during his career for a handful of film roles, many of them playing similar characters. He specialized in the American adventurer making his way through the Mexican Revolution in movies like The Wrath of God, Villa Rides, The Wonderful Country, and 1956's Bandido.

It's 1916 along the U.S.-Mexican border, and American gunrunner/businessman Kennedy (Zachary Scott), traveling with his wife, Lisa (Ursula Thiess), has cut a deal with the Mexican government with an enormous shipment of arms, ammunition and explosives. Catching wind of the shipment, American adventurer Wilson (Mitchum) sees a chance for a huge payday. He approaches Colonel Escobar (Gilbert Roland), a revolutionary leader, about cutting his own deal, stealing the shipment and taking his fair share. Escobar is suspicious, but his forces desperately need the supplies. With so much on the line, everyone is ready to turn on each other.

Just a few weeks removed from reviewing Viva Zapata, here's a prime example of a Zapata western; the Mexican Revolution with adventurers, idealists, freedom fighters, opportunists and so many more fighting it out. It's not flashy here in director Richard Fleischer's film, but everything is handled in a more than capable fashion. For anyone familiar with any other Zapata westerns, you're going to feel like you've seen it before, the same characters, storylines and backstabbings coming down the road. Not a bad thing, just an observation.

Much of 'Bandido' was filmed on location in Mexico, and the movie benefits greatly from it. IMDB's Trivia section even says that many of the locations were the actual spots where Pancho Villa and his forces battled with the Mexican Regular army, adding a sense of authenticity to the proceedings.  It looks like Mitchum, Roland, and Co. are part of the revolution. Mexico is a beautiful country, and Fleischer's camera certainly shows that.

What often comes out of these Zapata westerns are the uneasy alliances between the profiteering Americans and the more idealistic revolutionaries. Cue Mitchum's Wilson and Roland's Escobar. Anytime these two are together the movie is above average. Once they're separated? The story slows down far too much. Escobar dubs Wilson 'El Alacran,' a deadly scorpion just waiting to sting his victims, just one little example of how their scenes and dialogue together crackles. Who better to play an American adventurer without a care in the world than Mitchum? His laid back, 'I don't give a damn' attitude is perfect. Roland basically played the same character the year before in The Treasure of Pancho Villa, and he hams it up like nobody's business. A 'Ay Chihuahua' drinking game would be appropriate.

The two of them provide 'Bandido' with its "cool factor." Mitchum is introduced walking calmly through the middle of a battlefield in a bullet-riddled town. Overlooking the battle, he deftly pulls two grenades from his pockets and throws them at Mexican gun crews working artillery pieces and machine guns. His work done, he lights and cigar and pours a drink. Roland is the picture of smooth too as Escobar, always observing and planning, ready to join in as needed. He is an idealist, fighting for Mexico's freedom more than riches and fame. Together, the duo is the perfect Zapata western equivalent of the Odd Couple.

Unfortunately too much time is spent on other things, taking away from that dynamic between Mitchum and Roland.  I think the movie wold have been significantly better if Kennedy, the gunrunner, and his wife were completely removed from the story. It's clear that Kennedy will make a deal with anyone that will pay him, and the same goes for Thiess' Lisa. Is it any surprise she will end up with Mitchum? Thiess -- not a great actress to begin with -- doesn't have much in the way of chemistry with Mitchum either. Other supporting parts include Henry Brandon (Scar in The Searchers) as Kennedy's German source working with the Mexican government with Rodolfo Acosta and Jose Torvay as two of Escobar's revolutionaries.

I do like this movie -- I've watched it twice over the years -- but I don't love it. The action is exciting, especially the finale on a barge loaded with supplies, Wilson and Escobar shooting it out with a company of Mexican soldiers. The cast is good, the locations gorgeous, and composer Max Steiner's score good if not great. It's an exciting popcorn movie, mostly worthwhile for Mitchum and Roland.

Bandido <---trailer (1956): ** 1/2 /****

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Animal Kingdom

American, English, French, Italian, Japanese, I've tried my best to review movies from all over the world, not just flicks from the good old United States. Well, add Australian to that list thanks to 2010's Animal Kingdom. A drama that received mostly positive reviews, the detractors were still out there. Too derivative, too much of stuff we've seen before. I'm not comparing it to the classic The Godfather, but it is in a similar vein in its story revolving around a crime family, albeit a smaller, less powerful one. Solid story, several nearly perfect performances, and a great soundtrack. Win, win and win.

When his mother overdoses on heroin, 17-year old Josh (James Frecheville) moves in with his estranged family, a family his mother intentionally isolated her son from. The Cody family, including family matriarch Janine (Jacki Weaver), has their hand in everything criminal, ranging from armed robbery to drugs. Josh is able to mostly avoid this criminal life until one of his uncles, Baz (Joel Edgerton), is gunned down by the police in an attempt to lure another uncle, Pope (Ben Mendelsohn), out of hiding. It seems now that there's no way for Josh to avoid the family name, especially when a detective (Guy Pearce) comes asking questions.

I stumbled across this film thanks to a preview/trailer on a Netflix DVD, and I'm glad I did. This was director David Michod's first feature film, and he certainly makes a positive, lasting impression. It is familiar without being too repetitive, and the comparisons to other recent crime thrillers (The Departed, The Town among others) aren't entirely fair. This is a movie that knows what it wants to do and how to get its message across. Understated and subtle, 'Kingdom' focuses on the characters that come out of the situation, not the other way around.

In its subtle, understated way, 'Kingdom' is a polished finished product with plenty of style but not just for the sake of having style. It serves a purpose. One striking shot has a SWAT team invading the Cody household, no natural sound or dialogue, just Antony Partos' quiet, moving score playing. Partos' score is a flashback to the quasi-electronic scores of the 1980s, reminding me at times of Tangerine Dreams. It is one of the best scores I can think of from the last 10 years though, and it ends up being a key character. One character's death scene is a near-classic because of Partos' score driving the action.

It's surprising with the performances that the most important one, Frecheville as Josh, the one we're supposed to care about the most, is the weakest one. Josh is supposed to be quiet, unassuming, withdrawn and removed from life in a lot of ways. So in that sense, Frecheville's performance is either the most brilliant thing around or the worst. There just isn't enough emotion or personality to make Josh truly interesting. Other interesting, smaller performances include Luke Ford as Darren, the quietest of the Cody brothers, and Sullivan Stapleton as Craig, the most emotional and intense of the brothers. Edgerton's character is gone too fast while Pearce is the calming influence, the conscience of the story who asks all the questions.

The two best performances though belong to two of the most sinister, creepiest villains around, Weaver as Janine "Smurf" Cody, the family matriarch, and Mendelsohn as Andrew, known as 'Pope.' Weaver is phenomenal, the mother/grandmother who lives to care for her sons. An incestuous relationship is hinted at, or at least an overly physical hold on her boys, but that could be me reading too far into things. Janine drops to new levels late to protect her family, cementing her status as an epically scary villain. As Pope, Mendelsohn is the psycho, the unhinged brother capable of anything, saying he's looking out for the family but really just focusing on himself.

I was surprised even more with the uproar over the film's ending. First off, it is a great, powerful and even a little shocking in its execution. I thought it was going one way, and then 'Kindgom' does an 180, going in a vastly different route. The finale didn't leave much room for interpretation in my opinion, but apparently lots of other viewers disagreed. I'll leave it up to you. Aussie, American, British, French, it doesn't matter. This is just a good movie.

Animal Kingdom <---trailer (2010): *** 1/2 /****

Monday, November 7, 2011

AMC's Hell on Wheels: Western's return to TV?

A little change of pace here with a TV review instead of the typical movie review. I've got to take my chances when they come along because how often does a new western TV show pop up, much less on a quality channel like AMC? Exactly, never, so here we sit. Premiering last night with a lot of potential, Hell on Wheels seems to have a lot of potential going in, and this western fan was impressed.

Ever since the 1970s, the success of the western genre -- film and TV -- has been constantly waning, never reaching the levels of popularity seen in the 1960s and before. Now we see the occasional movie in theaters, an occasional TV show like The Magnificent Seven in the 1990s, but it's nothing like the glut of westerns from previous decades. 'Hell' probably won't please everyone, but it's dark, gritty, violent, realistic and even a tad on the funny side at times.

It's 1865 and the United States is still very much recovering from the horrific Civil War. The Union Pacific railroad is being built across the country, providing some with a chance just for a paying job while others like Thomas 'Doc' Durant (Colm Meaney) stand to profit with the developing business. Among those moving west with the railroad is Cullen Bohannon (Anson Mount), a former Confederate soldier trying to move on from the things he see and people he lost in the war. But while hellacious things were left behind in so many's past, what stands ahead is equally as vicious. Bohannon's plans for revenge though will not be easily stopped or slowed down.

With shows like Breaking Bad, Mad Men and The Walking Dead, AMC has shown a commitment to providing high-quality dramas that audiences have eaten up over the last handful of years. 'Hell' certainly has the potential to join those ranks. The production value is impressive, from the on-location shooting to the gritty, realistic look to costumes and uniforms worn by the cast. And getting away with what basic cable can't, there's plenty of violence -- some surprisingly graphic -- to go with language and cursing. How can you lose?

What does a western need most of all? A hero, or more accurately, an anti-hero.  Enter Anson Mount as Cullen Bohannon, a prototypical western loner/gunslinger moving west looking for revenge. The pilot episode reveals what Cullen is up to -- avenging his wife's death at the hands of Union soldiers -- by dropping hints along the way. We can't give everything away now, can we? Mount's Cullen has the look of a western gunslinger, and he very much so looks extremely comfortable in the part. Hat worn low on his face, gunbelt at his hip, stubble on his face and a man of few words, this is a good start if the series wants to continue. If anything the story needs to focus more on the avenging Cullen.

It is a pilot so it suffered some from throwing everything at the fan and seeing what sticks to the walls. With that issue, we got a whole lot of characters thrown our way, some in quick snippets, others given more development. The most interesting could be rapper Common as Elam, a former slave working on the railroad crews clearing the land for the tracks. He finds himself in the same situation he did as a slave and is pissed at the world because of it. Meaney is a great villain too, looking forward to see where his character goes. There's also Lily (Dominique McElligott), a member of a survey team, Mickey (Phil Burke) and Sean (Ben Esler), two Irish brothers trying to make some money, and a couple other smaller parts that look like they'll get more attention in the coming weeks. Also impressing was guest star Ted Levine as Daniel Johnson, a one-handed, alcoholic, racist train crew supervisor.

As a western fan, I was psyched to hear that AMC had a western coming down the road, and I can say that I'm excited to see where Hell on Wheels goes. Hopefully it picks up a following and is here to stay!

Hell on Wheels <---AMC trailer (2011)

Sunday, November 6, 2011

The Hills Run Red (1967)

Discovering the spaghetti western genre through the Clint Eastwood/Sergio Leone Dollars trilogy, I quickly figured out the problem if I was going to see more of the spaghettis. Most of them just weren't available in a watchable form, at least the ones that were somewhat affordable. So to find them I was scouring TV listings, looking through bargain bins, even trading a couple movies here and there. Thankfully DVD distributors finally started releasing some of the lesser-known entries, including one I'd always wanted to see, 1967's The Hills Run Red.

As the Civil War comes to a close, Confederate soldiers Jerry Brewster (Thomas Hunter) and Ken Seagull (Nando Gazzolo) have robbed a Union payroll. About to be caught by a Union patrol, they flip to see who will buy the other one some time, Jerry losing out but demanding that Ken care for his family until he can get back to them. Ken escapes with the money -- some $600,000 -- and Jerry is captured and sent to prison, serving a brutal five-year sentence. He is finally released only to find that Ken refused to help his family, Jerry's wife dying years before and his son is missing. His former partner even used the money to set himself up as a powerful rancher, holding rein over hundreds of miles of land. A man possessed, Jerry is looking for revenge. He gets himself hired by Ken's top hand, Mendez (Henry Silva), and goes about taking down the empire from the inside.

This is pretty typical of a majority of spaghetti westerns in that it is neither a classic nor an awful movie. It's entertaining on a pretty basic level but never rises or falls to any heights or depths.  Former film critic Carlo Lizzani takes his crack at a genre that was at the height of its popularity in 1967, turning out a western that has some strands of an American western but has a decidedly Italian flavor, most of them for the good. Composer Ennio Morricone's score is not one of his best or most memorable, but it's catchy like most of his scores were. It certainly has a different sound compared to his more well-known scores, even featuring a song, 'Home to My Love,' that feels out of place.

Spaghetti westerns have a reputation for being particularly nasty in their brutal portrayal of the west, and 'Hills' has to be one of the most brutal. One review called it misanthropic, and after a quick detour to the dictionary, I can confirm.  It has little regard for people at all, mowing down countless gunmen in various fashions, one nastier than the rest. Hunter's Brewster has to be one of the genre's most punished leads, and that's saying something. Within the first 30 minutes, he's been beaten half to death twice, tortured in prison, cuts off his own tattoo, gets tangled up in a handful of gunfights and also stabs a rival gunman in the hand. Don't worry though, nothing's stopping this guy. It's a little more graphic than even most spaghetti westerns so if you're a fan of graphic, brutal violence, this is a movie for you.

One of hundreds of spaghettis generally forgotten, much of that can be chalked up to Thomas Hunter in the lead. An American actor who only starred in nine movies (most of them European), Hunter just isn't the greatest actor or charismatic enough to have a starring role, one where the movie depends on him. The dubbing across the board is pretty awful, but it hurts Hunter a ton. A gunman looking for revenge is an ideal lead, a man obsessed with avenging his family, but in Hunter's hands that means overacting in a BIG way. His scenes that call for any emotion are almost hysterical. He screams so much, his eyes bulging that I couldn't help but laugh. You're rooting for him because he's the good guy, not any real reason.

Now where overacting can be a good thing is the villain, and in steps Henry Silva, one of the all-time great movie bad guys. Just like Hunter's Brewster, Silva's Mendez is ridiculously and completely over the top, but he's the villain so you buy it, and it's fun. He laughs hysterically in almost every scene, is always ready to pull a gun and blast away, and speaks in this basic Spanish that is comical in its badness. Va-ma-nos mu-cha-chos! Mendez is also decked out in black leather jacket and pants, black shirt and black sombrero. Bad Guys 101, Silva is a good bad guy, and he does most of the heavy lifting. Gazzolo makes no impression at all as Ken Seagull turned Ken Milton.

In the bizarre, kinda weird casting department, American actor Dan Duryea plays Winny Getz, a mysterious gunman working with Brewster to take down Milton and Mendez and their empire. Why so mysterious? Gotta stick around to the end to find out his "secret." It feels thrown together and unnecessary, but Duryea feels out of place here anyways, like he accidentally got on a plane to Italy and walked onto the set. Italian beauty Nicoletta Machiavelli is the obligatory love interest, Milton's sister, Mary Ann, who likes Brewster but is pursued by Mendez.

What else to recommend or rip? Little of both in the finale, Brewster and Getz running on a wild goose chase through an abandoned town as Mendez's small army of gunmen pursue them. It's some good action with some exciting gunplay, but also mind-blowingly stupid. If these gunmen thought it through at all, they'd stop chasing these two vastly outnumbered guys into dark rooms. Still, it's a fun sequence like the rest of the movie. Fun and pretty forgettable, but you could do much worse.

The Hills Run Red <---trailer (1967): ** 1/2 /****